Here is a special installment of “Ask Shelby” from Chester County’s own Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Shelby Riley.
Bruce Jenner. What?!?! I have to admit I am seriously confused by all of this. Can you help me understand what is going on when people talk about being transgender?
I know a lot of people are confused by issues of gender identity. I am not an expert or a specialist in these issues, but I am happy to break this down into terms that may help to clarify things a little bit.
At a play therapy conference a few weeks ago, one of the workshop presenters opened with this: “Give us your name, where you work, and how you know you are the gender that you are.” I can easily tell you my name and my work setting, but the third one was a tough question to answer. Our body parts determine what biological sex we are, but our gender is something different. It is something we know and feel on a very deep level. It is also something we perform everyday (nice girls don’t boss people around; man up, boy’s don’t cry, etc.). The qualities I wanted to use to “prove” or explain my gender (empathy, verbal expression, a focus on relationships) can easily be used to describe a man. We have a great nature/nurture issue on our hands. Our gender identity is something innate in us, but it is also something we were taught, something we are asked to perform every day.
People like to categorize and create safety with clear roles and defined limitations. We are taught rules from a very young age about what it means to be a boy, a girl, a man, a woman. Boys like to play with cars. Girls like to play with dolls. Men are tough. Woman are sensitive. Sometimes all of these statements are true. But is it also true that girls like to play with cars and boys like to play with dolls. Maybe not as often as the reverse, but is that innate preference or social conditioning? Women are tough and men are sensitive. Sometimes this is celebrated and sometimes this is shamed.
For the majority of people, their biological physical form matches their overall gender identity. (Boy body parts, gender identity of a boy, yep, it’s a match!) Most of the people in that normative group bump into some dissonance about who they are and who they’re supposed to be. Maybe you are a woman who is incredibly strong and muscular and you received the message that you weren’t dainty enough. Maybe you are a man who loves to sew and you were taught that sewing is “women’s work.” We are hushed and silenced in many small ways, even as part of the majority, normative group.
Imagine if you didn’t fall into this majority group. Imagine if your sense of yourself as male or female didn’t match your physical body. It didn’t match what your family and friends and teachers and the world taught you about who you are supposed to be. Imagine how hard it would be to articulate that, to “prove” that you aren’t who they want you to be. And to hold firm to the idea that you aren’t a “mistake.” That you weren’t “made wrong.” Because no one is a mistake nor made wrong. Our desire to categorize and stereotype is what forces people into thinking they are “wrong,” that they don’t “fit.” Categorizing is a really useful way our brains sort information so that we can assess situations quickly. Searching for patterns and norms isn’t wrong. It’s when we oversimplify and over-stereotype that we create limitations that can be very damaging.
We need to be able to hold the mysterious truth that on one hand, men and women are beautifully different. And on the other, it is very hard to prove or explain how they are different, if we remove the physical, biological evidence of body parts. So when someone feels like their deep, wise, internal sense of being a boy or girl doesn’t match their physical body, that is when we use the term transgender.
Gender identity is different than sexual orientation. Gender identity is about a deep knowing of being male or female. Sexual orientation is about who you are sexually attracted to. They are two different aspects of a person’s identity. And remember, there are many other aspects of a person’s identity: race, faith, passions, talents, interests, and character traits like kindness, compassion, and generosity, to name a few.
Here’s what I suggest. For yourself and with others, be curious about what it means to be You, this special amazing You. Not just with gender, but with all kinds of aspects of being human. Ask yourself and others what it means to be fully You. As parents, this translates into refraining from telling our kids who they should be, and instead, asking them to show us who they truly are, and celebrating them. It’s our job to help them grow up to be good people, and the skills to be a good man look pretty much the same as what it takes to be a good woman. So raise good people. It gives your kids the room to confidently fill in some of the blanks for themselves.
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.